The Food Crisis And The Global Scramble For Farmlands

Published on Countercurrents, by Sam Urquhart, 17 June 2009.

Governments – concerned about future food security – have been furiously signing deals with other governments across the world. Saudi Arabia has tied up 25,000 ha in Sudan to grow corn, soy and wheat, with Jordan and Syria inking similar deals. China has reportedly signed numerous deals, as in Laos , where a state rubber company has acquired 160,000 ha, and Mozambique , where 10,000 “settlers” are reportedly set to assist in the conversion of thousands of hectares to export crop production. Even tiny Mauritius has agreed a deal with Mozambique to farm 5,000 ha of land in a country where over 50 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day …

… Mozambique is not unique, and nor is China . In Kenya , Qatar is currently seeking to arrange the lease or purchase of 40,000 ha in exchange for the refurbishment of the port at Lamu. Yet, as the Guardian reports, the deal “has attracted fierce opposition from environmentalists who say a pristine ecosystem of mangrove swamps, savannah and forests will be destroyed” while “Pastoralists, who regard the land as communal and rear up to 60,000 cattle to graze in the delta each dry season, are also opposed to the plan.”

The pattern is familiar. Tanzania , to the south of Kenya , has reportedly set up a 2.5 million ha land “bank” and the UK firm Sun Biofuels has become the first to take advantage of the government’s enthusiasm for agricultural investment by leasing 18,000 ha. In Sudan , a Saudi Arabian firm has leased 25,000 ha north of Khartoum while the Jordanian government has been assured another 25,000 ha block on the Nile . Even in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ravaged by years of war, the firm MagIndustries is setting up a 68,000 ha eucalyptus plantation and constructing a 500,000 tons per year wood-chipping plant.

It’s a tsunami of land deals and, as all of the experts who have studied the phenomenon have agreed, no nation is truly prepared for its implications.

This is worrying, as the wave of “land grabs” carries with it huge social and environmental pitfalls. For one thing, the continuing encroachment of governments and private investors into indigenous lands is breaking apart communal landholding systems. In turn, this is compromising the ecosystems that such peoples maintain and subsist from.

Then there are the implications for small-scale agriculture in general. There is a perceived need to move towards “sustainable agriculture” which is less dependent upon fossil fuel inputs, more efficient, more socially equitable and has a low ecological impact.

But, these land grabs are compromising the prospects for small farmers, and seem to be boosting industrial-style plantations. As GRAIN’s Kuyek told me, “The fact is that you’re taking away lands from farmers who are the only way that you’re going to move towards sustainable agriculture that meets the needs of local people.”

But what can people do about land grabs? MELCA Mahiber provides one model – having lobbied the Ethiopian government and laboriously compiled its own research on large-scale agriculture projects within the nation’s borders. But its success is far from certain. Cambodia shows the fragility of a legalistic solution. What is needed is collective action.

As the IFPRI researchers von Braun and Meinzen-Dick conclude “by acting collectively the poor can stimulate a shift in power relations.” Kuyek is more strident. ” People need to be aware of what governments are doing” he told me. “They need to insist on the right to know what leaders are signing away on their behalf, and to push for a process to uncover what is being done, and to allow the people to decide.”

“These are their lands, and they need to take control of their lands. It’s as simple as that.” (full text).

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